- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 27, 2006

The murmurs started more than a month ago when it became clear the Virginia lacrosse team would bulldoze through its remaining regular-season opponents and cruise into the NCAA tournament unbeaten. Its efficiency and dominance prompted the question of just where the Cavaliers rank among the sport’s most impressive teams.

Defenseman Mike Culver knows when he will consider the answer to that debate.

“Maybe when I’m an old man, sitting in a rocking chair and sipping lemonade,” Culver said. “This weekend, hopefully we will be holding up that big trophy.”

The top-seeded Cavaliers (15-0) are certainly more concerned about today’s semifinal against Syracuse (10-4) at Philadelphia’s Lincoln Financial Field than how the record books could perceive them, a fitting trait for a group that has experienced highs and lows in years past.

Maybe it would be different if the members of this year’s senior class had not won a national title in 2003. That set up a stunning stumble to 5-8 the next year before the Cavaliers rebounded to reach the semifinals in 2005, where they lost a 9-8 overtime thriller to Johns Hopkins in one of the best games in tournament history.

Those setbacks helped mold Virginia’s commitment and relentlessness, two facets that emerged in rout after rout.

“I’ve been quite open in saying 2004 has had a lot to do with where we are,” Virginia coach Dom Starsia said. “If you want to fix 2004, then we’re in a different place. The middle of 2004 was terrifying where you didn’t know if you had a chance every week, but it’s had everything to do with the evolution of our program.”

The last two years also had a profound impact on how players viewed the program. No longer could they assume the Cavaliers would have a spot in the postseason. And the tight loss to Hopkins reminded them of what it would take to win another title.

It’s why senior Charlie Glazer took freshman Gavin Gill under his wing during weight training sessions last fall, both wearing old-school cut-off T-shirts with the words “Buckle Up” and a seat belt on the front. It’s why the unselfish Cavaliers always make the extra pass and have assists on an absurd 69.6 percent of their goals. And it’s why Virginia has eschewed close games for routs all year.

“We did have a lot of close games in big games, and there’s still three classes that experienced that,” senior midfielder J.J. Morrissey said. “We know what it is to play in close games. The fact that we know doesn’t mean we want it to be close. We want to work hard. We’ve focused on outworking the other team, so come fourth quarter we’re not as worried about the outcome as the details.”

The Cavaliers rarely have had reason to sweat in the final minutes. They steamrolled Syracuse in a fast-paced game, suffocated Johns Hopkins at a moderate tempo and buried Maryland in the first five minutes in the regular season.

That doesn’t include a second victory over Maryland and a 20-8 pounding of Georgetown in the quarterfinals that featured the Cavaliers’ typical laser-like passing and shooting, underrated and aggressive defense and startling team speed that ensures transition chances.

“I think they have very, very talented players, and they’re as talented if not more than most teams, and they obviously have great leaders,” said Hopkins coach Dave Pietramala, who guided the Blue Jays to a 16-0 season last year. “[But] I think Virginia found out and knew who they were and what they wanted to be before anyone else did. They’ve just been able to keep it going.”

Starsia scoffs at any hint the Cavaliers are unbeatable, but there doesn’t seem to be an obvious path to victory for opponents. Only two foes — Princeton and Notre Dame — lost by four goals or fewer, and both teams’ goalies made 20 saves.

The Cavaliers also play at a once-common frenetic pace that is almost foreign to today’s game, which has allowed them to quickly bury teams. Virginia has trailed for only 47:30 all season, and never in the last eight games.

“To put yourself in position to beat them, I think the key is to get a lead and force them to play at your tempo,” said Maryland midfielder Brendan Healy, whose team suffered 15-5 and 11-5 losses to the Cavaliers. “Because if you play at UVa’s tempo and they get an early lead, you have to play into their hands and they’re the best team in the country.”

It’s a struggle to find a weakness. Maybe Virginia’s heavy reliance on first-line midfielders Kyle Dixon, Matt Poskay and Drew Thompson will wear them out by Monday. Perhaps an opponent can dominate faceoffs and couple that with pinpoint shooting. An opposing goalie could get hot enough to even deflect a few of the layups the Cavaliers usually earn.

If the last three months have proved anything, it’s that Virginia won’t stop itself — a mark of any team in the discussion for greatest ever.

“When you go undefeated, I don’t care if you’re winning by one goal a game or you’re killing people, there’s a lot that goes into that,” said Princeton coach Bill Tierney, whose 1997 team went 15-0. “There’s a lot more emotional and mental pressure to go undefeated. You can become your own worst enemy. That they’ve gone without even a ripple in this thing is a tribute to just how good they are.”

The Cavaliers refuse to buy into such talk any sooner than Monday, perhaps another reflection of their greatness but definitely a byproduct of the program’s recent experiences.

“I’m not trying to be uppity, but I don’t think we’re that impressed with ourselves yet,” Starsia said. “It manifests itself in us bringing a healthy attitude to practice every day, and as a coach that’s where the fun of it is. I don’t take any of this for granted, but I don’t think any one of us is overwhelmed with our performance right now. …

“It’s a group of guys where there’s a willingness to sacrifice. There’s some guys that seem kind of ego-less. That’s a rare occurrence in a group of college kids like this. Guys are willing to do whatever it takes.”

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